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Don’t keep those home fires burning

‘Tis the season to begin thinking about the ever-present danger of fire in our homes and what can be done to prevent it.

With the holidays fast approaching, more and more fireplaces will be kindled, candles lit and electrical outlets working overtime. Even a poorly maintained kitchen oven with accumulated grease and grime can spell tragedy for a homeowner.

Experts in the field of fire prevention, from firefighters to chimney sweeps, have common-sense advice to offer on ways to guard against home fires.

What constitutes one of the biggest fire threats in a person’s home during holiday time might surprise you: candles.

“People like them because they like to create ambiance,” said engineer and driver Ron Nelsen of La Jolla Fire Station 13, which covers an area from Torrey Pines Road and Prospect Street down to Forward Street in Bird Rock, and north on Nautilus Street to Via del Verde. “But, you have to pay attention to them. You can’t put them near curtains, near combustibles, leave them on.”

La Jolla firefighters have responded to plenty of candle-driven fires. People light them, forget about them and leave. If they’ve put them in an inappropriate place, there could be a fire engine and smoke-ravaged home waiting for them when they return.

Chimneys left unattended can also present a major fire hazard, a fact to which Darrel Barber, owner of Top Hat Chimney Sweep, can attest. Sometimes, he said, the reason why a chimney is smoking can be simpler than one might suspect.

“The damper, which allows smoke and heat to go up the chimney stack, make sure that’s open,” he said. “Lots of times people close it during the summer to keep out noise and critters and forget to open it up again.”

Nelsen of Fire Station 13 frequently responds to such events.

“We get a couple calls a year for smoke in the house,” he said. “When the flue opens up, smoke goes away. They’re embarrassed.”

Chimney sweep Barber said creosote, a black tarry residue left over from burnt wood, presents a fire hazard in chimneys because it’s flammable, builds up over time and is extremely tough to clean.

“Creosote is like melted glass on the chimney walls,” he said. “You can’t get it off with normal cleaning means. You have to use chemicals or mechanical methods.”

Barber suggests homeowners have their chimneys cleaned out every two or three years if they use their fireplace heavily in winter, or every three to five years if they use it more occasionally.

A spark arrester, a four-sided cap with a wire screen that fits atop the chimney and costs $100 or less, is also an excellent fire safeguard. Barber said such an arrester prevents sparks from flying out and igniting tree growth around the chimney outlet.

The screen also keeps four-legged guests from using your chimney as a den. Spark arresters help keep out water, which rusts chimneys if they’re metal and erodes brick in them if they’re not.

As dangerous as a forgotten candle or an unclean chimney, a kitchen oven not properly maintained can be another accident waiting to happen, turning a holiday into hell for a day.

“During the holiday season, people tend to cook more, roasting a turkey in their ovens with Grandma and Grandpa coming over,” said firefighter Nelsen. “But if their oven’s not in that great shape, it’s dirty, needs to be cleaned out, accumulated grease or grime can actually get hot enough to flame up. Usually, it’s not that serious a deal. But, it’s still an event that’ll make a big mess and ruin your holiday.”

Nelsen said it’s not hard for firefighters to detect oven fires.

“You get within a couple blocks of it, and you can smell burnt food and melted frying pan from that unattended food,” he said. “It smells up the whole house and takes a couple days for it to air out.”

Christmas trees and all the electrical outlets used to keep them lit are the most obvious fire hazard during the holiday season. But the fire hazard they present can be avoided by taking a few sensible precautions. Proper maintenance is the key to fire prevention.

“Natural Christmas trees, when they dry, when the needles are brittle, they’re a real hazard. They burn really fast,” said Station 13 firefighter Ray Balai. “Most artificial Christmas trees are required to have fire retardant and not be flammable.”

Nelsen said ignoring the fire threat posed by dry Christmas trees can be fatal.

“I know of a guy who was dragging his tree through his house,” he said, “and he dragged it past his fireplace, and it caught on fire and killed him. He had third-degree burns all over his body, and he died a week or two later.”

The firefighter advises residents to get rid of the tree right after Christmas.

“Once it starts getting brittle,” said Balai, “get rid of it.”

To protect against home fires during the holiday season, Nelsen recommends using multi-socket power strips to handle seasonal lighting.

“There’s a circuit breaker in there with an on-off switch,” he said. “It’s better than putting cheap extension cords all over the place. They’re really good insurance.”

Smoke alarms are another must-have from a safety point of view.

“It’s required in the building codes,” said Balai.

One of the smartest things in fire safety is to have a fire escape plan figured out beforehand, said Balai, including a gathering spot for the family outside. He said homeowners need to figure alternate routes out of the home if the usual ones are blocked by flame or smoke.

“If you can’t get out the front door, figure out how to get out a two-story or a bedroom window,” he said. “Also, close the door behind you to prevent fire from spreading through your house.”

Another fire safety rule of thumb is to stay low, as fire and smoke both rise and temperatures and noxious smoke will be less prevalent near ground level.

“Most people die from smoke rather than fire,” said Balai.

Each year, more than 4,000 Americans die and about 20,000 are injured in fires, many of which could be prevented. The United States Fire Administration believes fire deaths can be reduced by teaching people the basic facts about fire.

  • Fire is fast. It only takes minutes for thick black smoke to fill a house. In minutes, a house can be engulfed in flames.

Most fires occur in the home when people are asleep. If you wake up to a fire, you won’t have time to grab valuables because fire spreads too quickly and the smoke is too thick. There is only time to escape.

  • Fire is hot. Heat is more dangerous than the flames. Room temperatures in a fire can be 100 degrees at floor level and rise to 600 degrees at eye level.

Inhaling this super hot air will scorch your lungs. This heat can melt clothes to your skin. In five minutes, a room can get so hot that everything in it ignites at once.

  • Fire is dark. It starts bright but quickly produces black smoke and complete darkness. If you wake up to a fire, you may be blinded, disoriented and unable to find your way around the home you’ve lived in for years.
  • Smoke and toxic gases kill more people than flames do.

In the event of a home fire:

  • Escape first, then call for help. Develop a fire escape plan and designate a meeting place outside. Make sure everyone in the family knows two ways to escape from every room. Practice feeling your way out with your eyes closed.
  • Never stand up in a fire. Always crawl low under the smoke and try to keep your mouth covered.

  • Never return to a burning building for any reason. It may cost you your life.
  • Finally, having a working smoke alarm dramatically increases your chances of surviving a fire.